In this strange new world - where the valley between truth and satire grows ever-foggier and sometimes it seems as though reality itself is slipping - scientists on seven continents and in New Orleans converged April 22 for rallies in support of facts, objective research and other previously undisputed elements of their work.
Hundreds of people in New Orleans, including a sizable contingent from a visiting conference of physical anthropologists, gathered at City Hall Saturday for a rally and March for Science defending scientific and medical research funding, opposing the politicization of research results and celebrating the role of scientists in protecting the environment and human society.
[content-1] [jump] The march was organized in response to what many scientists see as threats to their work under President Donald Trump's administration. Rollbacks of environmental regulations, proposed budget cuts to various science-related organizations such as the EPA, NIH and NASA, the president's apparent sympathies toward the anti-vaccination movement, climate change denialism among high-ranking officials and a host of other signals all seem to indicate a hostility toward de-politicized, rigorous scientific research.
Speakers at the rally included National Society of Black Physicists president and NASA scientist Renee Horton and LIGO scientist Joseph Giaime. As scientists from different fields took the mic, they almost universally stressed the ways science benefits everyone -and how reproducible, evidence-based research is a key pillar of societal advancement. In keeping with the national March for Science organization's platform, most struck a nonpartisan tone while still condemning anti-science policies such as funding cuts and deletion of data.
Lucio Miele, who heads the genetics department at Louisiana State University, rattled off a lists of developments spurred by science in the 31 years since he immigrated from Italy and Germany, including the mapping of the human genome, treatment for Hepatitis C, the HPV vaccine, the identification and treatment of HIV and more.
"For the first time since I landed at JFK (International Airport) in 1986 I am deeply afraid about the future of American science," he said. "We do what we do not out of curiosity, but to serve our communities. ... Science belongs to everyone."
[content-2]March organizer Siobhain McGuinness framed the preservation of scientific research as an issue of human rights, saying we all have the right to enjoy good health, drink clean water and receive correct information from medical professionals. She told Gambit she began organizing the New Orleans march to defend those rights, and to facilitate awareness of the often-unseen work of scientists in many fields.
March participants, some wearing coiled knit "brain" caps, carried signs that referred to everything from the sci-fi cartoon Rick and Morty to cosmologist Carl Sagan ("Hail Sagan") to the rapidly-eroding Louisiana coast ("In the time it took you to read this sign, Louisiana lost 500 feet of land"). As they marched from City Hall down Poydras Street to South Peters Street behind the Furious Five brass band, their short chants seemed so uncontroversial as to be almost funny: "Which facts? Real facts!" "Climate change! Is real!"
On signs and in interviews, many alluded to their work as doctors or researchers, itself a subtle critique of the "professional protester" narrative advanced by conservative media outlets and, occasionally, the president.
Owen Richfield, a Tulane University graduate student who studies the atherosclerotic plaques which cause often-fatal strokes, attended the march to support continued government funding of work like his.
"If they slash [funding] ... I'm not going to be able to go out in the world and do some science," he said. "It makes me lose faith in what we're trying to do in this country."
ER doctor Fred Schouest and his wife Dorothy attended to stand up against what they see as the diminishment of scientific authority in public discourse. He specifically mentioned the anti-vaccination movement, which has caused outbreaks of disease in regions where the movement has gained prominence. "The scientific world has to stand up say 'Why don't they believe us?'" he said.
Carrie Huckaba, an accountant, came to the march on her birthday to support her husband, a Xavier University biologist. She said the march has specific resonance in Louisiana, where a uniquely fragile ecosystem of animals and plants is imperiled by climate change.
For her, science is a key part of contemporary U.S. culture.
"Science fuels everything that we do in our society, from cell phones to cars to light and electricity. ... [Without it], you lose a lot of the history that makes the United States great," she said.
More than one person mentioned the unusual nature of the event. A Washington Post analysis this morning called demonstrations like this "pretty unprecedented" among scientists, who often have prided themselves on avoiding the appearance of taking sides in the political fray.
Latha Rajan, a infectious disease doctor who now teaches at Tulane University's medical school and public health program, said "senseless" cuts to research funding are just one part of what's driving this kind of activism. In the current political environment, she anticipates continued participation by scientists in similar actions.
"Scientists are normally not activists. ... [But the current situation] is threatening our whole profession and the world," she said. "I don't know how effective it's going to be, but I think we have to make a stand."